Near Germany, Christmas Eve 1942…
Daniel Rogers moaned, laying his head against the back of the train seat. No matter which direction he shifted, nothing seemed to soothe the deep wound in his side. He tugged at his uniform, trying to smooth out the bumps.
Just as he couldn’t get his body relaxed, he couldn’t seem to stop his memories from haunting his soul...
“Please…please, you must help my brother! Please save him! I beg you!” The German’s cruel, cold face stared back at him blankly.
“Nein. I do not save your kind.”
“Please!” Daniel begged. “He’s my little brother...he’s the only family I have left!”
His face showing no emotion, the German let out a scoff and walked away. Daniel bent over his brother, trying to stop his bleeding, trying to ease his pain.
“I’m sorry, Aaron...I’m so sorry.”
Daniel reached into his coat pocket and touched the last earthly reminder he had of his brother...his crayons. Aaron had always dreamed of becoming an artist, and just touching his beloved crayons released a flood of sweet memories. With a simple touch, Daniel could suddenly picture his brother’s smile, hear his gentle voice, and even smell the ivory soap he’d use to wash his hair.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted when the train lurched and slowed down even more. He could see from the dim moonlight outside they were deep in the woods and a heavy snow was falling. How he wanted to go and give that train driver a piece of his mind! They were supposed to have arrived at the army hospital by now, but the snow drifts and reports of German troops along the way had delayed them almost four days. Now all the weary passengers were shivering, cold, and hungry.
All around him other injured soldiers lay, most of othem half conscious or delirious. There was only one doctor for all of them, something Daniel couldn’t figure out.
“Still alive, buddy?” his friend Nate Murray inquired, leaning over him. “Doc said he’d come around and look at your wound in a sec.”
“Why would it matter?” Daniel grumbled. “Not like he can do anything for me. This stupid train won’t keep going!”
Nate jostled him gently. “Well, you’re as pleasant as my sister’s cat. Lighten up! Some of our train comrades are gonna bring around some biscuits and coffee.”
“No doubt they’ll both be stale and full of weevils,” muttered Daniel.
His friend didn’t get a chance to reply. The train came to a sudden stop and Daniel would have been thrown from his seat if Nate hadn’t had a good grip on his arm.
“Oh, this is just dandy!” Daniel brushed off his friend’s hand and slouched in his seat. “Another stop. What a way to spend Christmas Eve...with a bunch of dirty, dying men and a German bullet in my side.”
Who’d want to celebrate Christmas with this awful war going on anyway? Aaron was the one who loved Christmas. Back in Vermont, he’d always draw me a picture and we’d sit up late drinking warm milk and talking and playing games together...my brother and I. But now he’s gone...
“Excuse me, monsieur?” Startled, Daniel looked up. Standing in front of him was a young girl holding a basket. Although her dress was threadbare and patched in several places, she wore a kind expression on her face. “I have some cold coffee and biscuits too. Perhaps you’d like a teaspoon of preserve on your biscuit, oui?
She rummaged around in her basket and pulled out a roll. Daniel’s tongue caught in his throat as he tried to speak to her, his face flushing red at the odd grunting sound that came from his mouth. The girl looked puzzled, and she glanced at Nate.
“Monsieur, is your friend mute?” The girl raised her dark brows curiously. “Oh, I see. He’s been injured.” She slathered some cherry preserves on the roll and handed it to him. “Here you are.”
With an embarrassed smile, Daniel took the food, managing to stammer out a, “Th-Thank you, m-miss.”
Her dark eyes danced. “Je vous en prie. I just had to do something to thank you kind soldiers. I’m a refugee from France, you see...and you men saved my life! Merci, and a very merry Christmas to you!” With a smile, she moved quietly on.
“Hey,” Nate mumbled, as the girl disappeared down the aisle. “What about me?”
Forgetting his pain for a moment, Daniel let out a boyish snicker and popped the biscuit into his mouth. “She must not have liked the way you style your hair,” he joshed. “Aren’t you ever going to comb it?”
Nate rolled his eyes and looked out the window. Suddenly he froze, a look of concern flashing over his face: “Daniel, something’s up...I just saw some lights through that clump of trees over there!” Taking out his pistol and steadying it on his bandaged arm, he made sure it was loaded.
“Do you think it’s the Germans?” Daniel asked, his body becoming tense.
“Well, we are still in Germany! Stay put.” He swung his legs over Daniel and rushed off down the aisle.
The young soldier began to feel uneasy when Nate didn’t return, so he stood, hand against the back of the seat in front of him for support. As annoying as Nate could be, he was his last living friend...
“Tu arrêtes! You shouldn’t do that.” The young girl was suddenly at his side, a look of displeasure on her gentle face. “If you fall, how would anyone help you up? I see your friend’s gone.” She glanced at the empty seat, then out the window. “Did you see something?”
Daniel shrugged. “Might have.”
Without a word, the girl gently pushed him back into the seat and quietly sat down next to him. He noticed a paper tablet peeking over the top of her basket.
“So...what is your name?”
“Mine is Claire Duval. Do you have family Monsieur Rogers?”
“My parents both died.”
“Well...don’t you have any other brothers or sisters?”
“I had a brother. He was killed.” Catching the pained look in his eyes, Claire reached out a hand and patted him on the arm. Her movement to comfort him brushed open her paper tablet, giving him a glimpse of what she had been drawing. Noticing his glance, her face flushed and she quickly shut the book.
“Je suis désolé... it’s not very good.”
Daniel gently took the tablet and opened it again. Before him lay a pencil sketch of a quaint French cottage, nestled in a picturesque valley. A juniper tree stood near the house and two children frolicked in its cool shadow. A mother and a father sat on a picnic blanket nearby, holding hands and watching the children. Just looking at the picture made Daniel wish he could step through the pencil sketch and into the happy scene.
“My home before the war,” she sighed. “Before everything changed.”
“Claire, this is beautiful! You’re very talented.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a shrug. “But something is missing.”
Daniel cocked his head. “What’s that?”
“Color. It was a beautiful evening for a picnic...the sunset lit up the valley with a beautiful red and yellow glow. A gray pencil sketch just cannot do it justice.”
Daniel slowly reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his brother’s crayons.
“You could try these,” he said, gently cradling the colorful wax sticks in his hands. “My brother wanted to be an artist and he would use these.”
“What are they called, monsieur?”
“Crayons,” he replied. Her eyes brightened, then got a faraway look as if she no longer saw the colorful objects.
“It’s not just my drawings that lack color…it’s everything. Anything beautiful seems to have been drained from the world during this long and terrible war. If I could make one wish this Christmas, it would be to bring color back into the dark, gray lives of every single person who’s suffered during this dreadful conflict. I even pray--” she paused, looked down to the floor and then straight into Daniel’s eyes, “I even pray the Germans will see color and heal.”
Daniel’s eyes flashed as he dropped the crayons onto the seat. “You want those monsters to heal? You want them to feel good again?”
“If you had asked me a few months ago, I would not have thought such feelings were possible,” she said, tears welling in her eyes, “but by the grace of God, I’ve learned to love the Germans, despite the wrong they’ve done. God has forgiven me...how can I not forgive them?”
“You have no idea, do you? No idea what those men did. My brother died because of them!”
Claire sat silently, willing him to continue.
“My brother was seriously wounded in a terrible battle. Our regiment’s doctor had been killed, but we had captured a German doctor earlier in the battle. I begged him to save my brother...to help him in any way. That man, that monster, refused! He turned his back on us; he didn’t show an ounce of pity. I held my dying brother in my arms and vowed then and there that I’d never forgive the Germans! Never forgive that man for murdering him!”
Panting and with tears in his eyes, he looked away. He hadn’t meant to yell at the girl. He hadn’t meant to start crying.
Claire bit her lip and looked down. Before she had a chance to reply, a sudden, enormous explosion rocked the train, tipping them to the side. A cry rang out all around them as wounded men suddenly became airborne. Claire let out a scream and clawed for the back of the seat in front of her.
Aaron’s crayons rolled and crashed against the wall, several snapping in half. A sick feeling clutching his heart, Daniel scrambled to gather up as many as he could, giving no thought to his own safety. The window beside him shattered, splintering into hundreds of fragments, and sending a piece of glass flying into the side of his head. He felt blood streaming down his cheek. Shoving the broken crayon pieces into his coat pocket, he looked around, his eyes blurring, his mind growing fuzzy. He could feel himself falling, then all was dark.
“Monsieur? Oh, Monsieur! You’re awake!”
Daniel moaned. Pain split through his head, forcing his eyes open. “What happened?” he asked, trying to get his eyes to focus. “Am I dead?”
Claire smiled softly, shaking her head. “Non. You were cut by some glass but I think
you’ll be fine. The bleeding has finally stopped.”
With effort, Daniel pulled himself up. From the cold seeping through his clothes and the sight of the starry sky overhead, he knew they were outside.
“What happened? Why are we out here?”
“A group of stranded German soldiers took over the train. Their own cars were stuck so they decided to take over the train and make us all get off.”
“Did they hurt anyone? Have you seen Nate?”
“I am so sorry, Monsieur. Your friend and a few others were crushed when the train car in front of us tipped over. They did not make it.”
Rage boiled in Daniel’s veins and he could feel tears welling in his eyes.
“If you are alright, I could use your help.” Claire reached out her hand, offering to help him to his feet. For the first time, Daniel noticed her cut arm and soiled dress. “There are so many injured and not enough people to help.”
“How many of our men were hurt?”
“Any soldiers near the car in front of ours were injured the worst. Any Germans standing outside that car were badly hurt as well.”
“Serves them right.”
“Monsieur,” Claire said softly. “Haven’t you ever heard of forgiveness? Even Christ forgave those who wronged Him.” There was a steadiness in her dark eyes, a peaceful look that seemed to settle his soul.
“But...I can’t, Claire. Don’t you understand?”
“Daniel, I watched my parents murdered, my little brother too. Believe me, I understand! If anyone should hate these people, it’d be me...yet, I’ve chosen to forgive. We can’t live the rest of our lives hating. If we did, we’d never have anything else in our hearts to use for good. Try...try and help.” She pointed to a man lying in the snow nearby. “He was one of the ones injured while taking the train over.” Handing him a blanket, she gently nudged him closer.
Heart pounding in his chest, Daniel slowly made his way towards the injured German, gripping the blanket tightly. He couldn’t believe he was doing this.
“Sir?” he called softly. “I have a blanket here for you.” Daniel bent down in the snow next to him, folding the blanket and gently placing it at his the side. Judging from the puddle of blood in the snow, he knew that the German would die unless he had help.
“Ach, so much pain...” the man mumbled, holding up his injured hand and loosely clutching onto Daniel’s jacket. The German’s eyes, filled with agony, opened and stared right into Daniel’s and in that one instant, the haunting scene suddenly flashed to mind.
It was the same face! Those same eyes! As if punched, he recoiled from the wounded German and cried out.
“You! It’s you! You're the one who let my brother die!”
“Huh?” the man asked, his weak body struggling to stay conscious. “Oh. You...you and your brother were the Americans that needed help, ja?” Daniel turned his face away. “You begged me to save your little brother, ja?”
It was too much. Daniel shoved himself backward and crumpled into a heap. It all came rushing back to him. The man’s cold stare, his outright refusal to help Aaron.
“Please…please, you must help my brother! Please save him! I beg you!” The German’s cruel, cold face stared back at him blankly.
“Nein. I do not save your kind…
...I do not save your kind…
...I do not save your kind....”
Daniel buried his face in the frigid snow, trying to silence the German’s words that echoed over and over in his mind. This man had let his brother suffer! He had let him die! But...now the enemy was the one who needed help.
He pressed a hand against his forehead as more words rushed into his mind...
“Monsieur, haven’t you ever heard of forgiveness? Even Christ forgave those who wronged Him. Believe me, I understand. If anyone should hate these people, it’d be me...yet I’ve chosen to forgive. We can’t live the rest of our lives hating. If we did, we’d never have anything else in our hearts to use for good...”
Tears streaming down his face, Daniel reached into his pocket and fingered the broken crayons. With a simple touch, memories of Aaron and of his last words suddenly rushed into his mind...
“You can’t, Daniel. You just can’t hate that man. He doesn’t know Jesus. His world is always gray...just like his friends, he’s caught up in the colorlessness of this terrible war.” Leave it to Aaron to use artistic wording even in a time like this. “You must forgive him.”
Daniel gripped his hand tightly, “Never!”
“But Daniel...” Aaron looked up at him with a smile. “I forgive him...”
“I forgive you.” Daniel said softly, crawling toward the man. Stretching out a trembling hand, he clasped the German’s cold one. “I forgive you.”
Tears rolling down both men’s faces, Daniel unfolded the blanket and wrapped it around the German’s shoulders.
Claire laughed softly, handing a German soldier a hard biscuit and turning to Daniel. “Monsieur, who would have thought a group such as this would be celebrating Christmas morning in a forest with hard biscuits and soured coffee?”
Daniel smiled gently, his heart much lighter than it had been in a long time. He glanced over at the German doctor who had survived the night. The man raised his head and nodded quickly at Daniel before looking away.
“I have a gift for you, Monsieur Rogers.” Claire pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket and smiled.
Daniel held up his hands. “You don’t need to give me a...”
“Non, please take it.”
He unfolded it and stared in wonder. It was a picture of him, bending over the German doctor. The man was crying and Daniel was holding his hand.
“I drew it after you fell asleep last night. Do you like it?” Claire’s dark eyes looked up at him expectantly.
“It’s beautiful,” Daniel whispered. From his pocket, he pulled a small package, wrapped tightly in a clean, white washcloth. “And this is for you, Claire.”
She smiled shyly and tore off the makeshift wrapping, a puzzled look spreading across her face as she stared down at the gift.
“These are your crayons...your brother’s art crayons! You’re giving them to me?”
“Claire, you were the one who finally helped me see my need to forgive. It’s only right that I give my brother’s crayons to someone who truly appreciates them.”
A tear rolled down her cheek and she blinked rapidly.
“Is something wrong?” Daniel asked quickly, touching her hand gently. “I know they’re broken. Maybe sometime I’ll be able to get you some new ones.”
“Oh, Monsieur, they’re perfect! I was just thinking...” she paused a moment, taking the picture she had created for Daniel and sliding a broken piece of blue crayon across the sky overhead. “Just as broken crayons still create color, Jesus Christ can use broken people to create something beautiful.” Her dark eyes met Daniel’s. “He’s our only hope during this terrible war...and through your forgiveness and kindness, He just brought a little color back into our gray world.”